May 10, 2017

Climate Change Is Turning the American Southwest into 'Mad Max'

Jack Holmes
A July 2012 dust storm in Gilbert, Arizona. Photo: Joseph Plotz, NWS/NOAA)
A July 2012 dust storm in Gilbert, Arizona. Photo: Joseph Plotz, NWS/NOAA)

But new research out today from a team led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shows this might be more serious a situation than even we accounted for.

According to the study, the number of dust storms that the American southwest experiences each year has more than doubled from the 1990s to the 2000s. These storms—which can spread infectious disease, damage airplane engines, disrupt land transportation, wreak further havoc on drought-ravaged farms, and serve as a key component of the Mad Max lifestyle—are likely more frequent because of warmer ocean temperatures in the Pacific Ocean. That, according to the EPA (last year), is one of many splendid results of climate change.

Dust storms now strike the Southwest 48 times a year, compared to an average of 20 times per year during the 1990s. Researchers traced the spike to a combination of warmer sea temperatures in the North Pacific and colder waters off the California coast, which allows the cooler, drier winds from the North Pacific to come sweeping into the southwestern United States. That has dried out the soil, and kicked up more dust storms. That uptick is correlated with a higher number of cases of Valley Fever, "an infectious disease caught by inhaling a soil-dwelling fungus found primarily in the Southwest."